Monday, August 27, 2012

An Atmosphere of Incisiveness

Inspired by a recent post of mine (which was inspired by a post of his), Ian Bogost laments "the fact that the professoriate—once [the university's] wacky, creative assets—are being processed into middle managers". As I say in my comment to his post, I think it's important to keep in mind that this has been going on for a long time. In 1938, Martin Heidegger held a lecture that was later published as "The Age of the World Picture". This passage has played a central role in my thinking about scholarly work for some time.

The decisive development of the modern character of science as ongoing activity, also forms men of a different stamp. The scholar disappears. He is succeeded by the research man who is engaged in research projects. These, rather than the cultivating of erudition, lend to his work its atmosphere of incisiveness. The research man no longer needs a library at home. Moreover, he is constantly on the move. He negotiates at meetings and collects information at congresses. He contracts for commissions with publishers. The latter now determine with him which books must be written. (The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, p. 125)

The phrase "ongoing activity" translates the German Betrieb, which can also mean "business" or "hustle" or, "busy-ness" as in "mere busyness", des blossen Betriebs. This image jibes nicely with the kinds of things people have been saying about Niall Ferguson. He's "hustling" his ideas. This gives his work an air of "incisiveness", but it undermines his more traditional air of erudition, learnéd-ness. (The German word for "scholar" is Gelehrte, i.e., learnéd one.) So, in his response to Pankaj Mishra's suggestion that he has come to write "whatever seems resonant and persuasive at any given hour", he claims to have "consistently sought to challenge the conventional wisdom of the moment". Notice that this actually grants the central point: that Ferguson is more interested in what people think happened in history than what really happened. These are simply different ways (negative and positive) of spinning his engagement with received views, which replaces a curiosity framed by "the totality of what is known and said" among scholars. Indeed, Justin Fox rightly points out that the backlash against Ferguson right now expresses "a groundswell of resentment for and frustration with the 'thought leaders' who craft our conventional wisdom" (my emphasis).

I used to take Heidegger's remark as an expression of an unavoidable shift in the "conditions of possibility" of modern research. I'm now thinking that this "atmosphere of incisiveness" is beginning to stink. It's thick with the smell of money.


Andrew Gelman said...


Niall Ferguson is an interesting example but I suggest you consider Paul Krugman as a test case. Krugman has not been sloppy like Ferguson, but he's been topical, he makes tons of money, he's political, etc. I worry that if you only use Ferguson as an example, it's hard to separate issues of scholarly sloppiness from his political views.

Anonymous said...

Krugman may not be "sloppy" -- though I disagree -- but he carries a small hammer and everything in his view looks to be a nail. He has a closed mind which is now thoroughly insulated by his political views.